Maira Kalman: Everyday Illuminations

by Christine Cariati

My dream is to walk around the world. A smallish backpack, all essentials neatly in place. A camera. A notebook. A traveling paint set. A hat. Good shoes. A nice pleated (green?) skirt for the occasional seaside hotel afternoon dance.

I don’t want to trudge up insane mountains or through war-torn lands.
Just a nice stroll through hill and dale.

But now I walk everywhere in the city. Any city. You see everything you need to
see for a lifetime. Every emotion. Every condition. Every fashion. Every glory.
—Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman, The Inauguration. At Last.
from And the Pursuit of Happiness Blog, New York Times
January 29, 2009

Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)” is currently on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Maira Kalman is an award-winning illustrator, designer and author who is perhaps best-known for her New Yorker covers, children’s books and illustrated And the Pursuit of Happiness Blog for the New York Times. She also created an illustrated edition of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style in 2005. In Various Illuminations,” we get a glimpse of Kalman’s other pursuits—including photography, textile design, embroidery and set design.

Maira Kalman, Self-portrait with Pete, 2004-5
Gouache on paper, 16″ x 15″

Kalman has lived in New York since the age of 4, when she moved with her family from Tel Aviv. In New York and on her travels, she walks everywhere, taking photographs and turning many of them into small gouache paintings. Kalman has an engaging narrative style—her stories immediately grab you and draw you in. Her sense of color is exhilarating. Kalman’s work is joyful, sad, humorous and witty—and her objects and people seem to embody a touching faith that the world around them, in spite of all the lurking chaos and danger, will ultimately protect them. She brings your attention to ordinary objects—tea cups, cakes, sofas—in a way that illuminates their essence.

Kalman’s interiors and portraits bring to mind the work of another favorite artist of mine, Florine Stettheimer. Like Stettheimer, Kalman infuses her portraits with the emotional and intellectual energy of the sitter—the flattened, vividly-colored surfaces come alive with cherished objects and artifacts that define the sitter’s interests and personality.

Maira Kalman, Kitty Carlisle Hart

Maira Kalman, Marie Antoinette

Maira Kalman, Emily Dickinson

Kalman wrote an entertaining illustrated essay (see below) about the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Mad About the Metropolitan, for the May-June 2008 issue of Departures Magazine.

What I’ve always admired most about Kalman’s work is her humanity—she manages to portray vulnerability and bravery in equal measure. Her work is completely free of irony and cynicism—she delights in the ordinary, finds the charm in everyday objects and has a boundless enthusiasm for looking at things and turning them into art—an impulse that is nicely summed up in the quote below:

I was out walking the dear dog and I saw 500 things that made me want to make art.

Kalman’s show is at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through October 26, 2010.

Wider Connections
Maira Kalman, The Principles of Uncertainty
Maira Kalman, Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)

10 Responses to “Maira Kalman: Everyday Illuminations”

  1. Thank you for this delightful post. Kalman is super!

  2. When I reviewed the Kalman show, I knew wondering who she reminded me of. You know what it’s like, when there’s a name right on the tip of your tongue and you can’t quite remember it. But it’s Stettheimer, of course! However, I think that Kalman’s work is more verbal and deliberately naive than Stettheimer’s (if that makes any sense). Kalman’s books for children are both verbally and visually brilliant whereas Stettheimer’s works, while childlike in appearance, are anything but.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      I agree, there are as many differences as similarities.

      Both have an engaging narrative style and an unerring, brave sense of color. In that respect, Stettheimer was a pioneer—after her many years of study in Europe, she embraced what she saw as an American palette, moving away from the natural browns, greens and blues in European paintings before any of her American peers.

      Maybe the concept of intent comes into play—Kalman’s work is whimsical, extremely imaginative, she has a light touch—she’s had no formal training and identifies herself as an illustrator. Stettheimer’s work is more cerebral—at first glance, Stettheimer’s work has a lighthearted appearance, but it’s more psychological. Her years of art training and study inform her work in profound ways.

      They both have the ability to make you believe in the moment they are portraying, there is real life and energy that comes through.

      I think the difference between illustration and painting is that illustration is more accessible, you don’t have to dig too deep to get what’s being conveyed. Kalman captures a moment—repeated viewings are always a visual delight, but don’t reveal more layers. It’s a wonderful gift to be able to summon up emotion and life with such a light touch.

      In contrast, Stettheimer’s work draws you in with it’s lightness, but then takes you deeper. At its core, beneath the engaging exterior, her work is quieter, more introverted, cerebral, pensive.

      It’d be interesting to know if Kalman knows or likes Stettheimer’s work. For all their substantial differences, they certainly have a lot in common—both are thorough New Yorkers, Jewish, with a circle of creative peers. Both celebrate the beauty of objects, comment on society and hit on profound truths about being human. Both work in other mediums—Stettheimer designed sets and costumes for theater and ballet and wrote poetry. As you point out, text is an important part of all of Kalman’s work, not just in her books, and she’s designed textiles, sets for dance, takes photographs, etc. If Kalman was influenced or inspired by Stettheimer, she has certainly taken that inspiration and made it her own.

  3. My favorite Kalman pieces were about Sandra Day O’Connor and her visit to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Delightful.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Kalman does have a gift for seeing that is contagious—her work makes you really look at everything with fresh eyes. Every time I think I have favorites, I find something else to delight me. I wish I’d been able to find images to post of two of my favorite of her portraits. One, of her late husband, Tibor Kalman, is so beautiful and touching. The other, of the wonderful, late Pina Bausch manages to be funny and sad at the same time. I think they are both in her book, “The Principles of Uncertainty.”

  4. Thanks for introducing me to Florine Stettheimer’s work. N

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      My pleasure, always happy to introduce someone to Stettheimer’s wonderful work. If it weren’t for the show at the Whitney in 1995, I would not have discovered her, never came across her name in years of studying art history. An idiosyncratic painter, especially one who is a woman, who follows their own path outside of any school or movement, is often overlooked…

  5. barbara melum Says:


  6. I was googling to find out info about Kalman and fuond this. So glad I did, this is great and I am off to watch the videos as well.Thank you.x

  7. Hello,

    I realize this is an older entry, but I was wondering if you could tell me if any of the Kalman artwork you featured above is in her books? I’m specifically looking for Marie Antoinette/Claire and the baked goods. Trying to buy a gift for a friend. I’ve already looked through “And the Pursuit of Happiness” and “Various Illuminations”. Help help please!

    If you could reply here or email me I’d really appreciate it!

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